Drink and a Movie: Inside Llewyn Davis

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The Force Awakens is a fine film in its own right, but its greatest achievement was to rocket Oscar Isaac straight into the Internet’s heart, from whence it quickly turned to Inside Llewyn Davis for more.

That’s lucky for those of us who’ve loved the film since its 2013 release, and had grown accustomed to the task of defending it—a task which put us (at least in our own estimation) in odd harmony with its guitar-strumming hero. Llewyn (played by Isaac) is a talented folk singer on the road to nowhere—sometimes literally—mostly because he’s just not a very nice guy. He's not willing, or perhaps temperamentally able, to play the celebrity game that increasingly went along with making it in the American folk music revival scene.

When we meet him at the Gaslight, he’s perched on a stool singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Soon he’s getting beat up in a back alley. The reason is both unclear and beside the point: as we quickly find out, any number of people seem to have good reason to take a swing at Llewyn. Like Jean (Carey Mulligan), whom he’s accidentally impregnated. Or her still-oblivious nice-guy husband Jim (Justin Timberlake), whose songwriting Llewyn can’t help but insult.

Llewyn has some idea of his craft that makes him pathologically afraid of merely existing, of becoming his father—”Exist?” his sister spits at him angrily. “That’s what we do outside of show business? It’s not so bad, existing.” But Jean also accuses him of bringing this all on himself, of not wanting to go anywhere—"and that’s why the same shit’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.” (“And also because you’re an asshole,” she adds.)

A true misanthrope, Llewyn stands in his own way. You can read the film as one big flashback, but I think it’s some combination of his misanthropy and plain bad timing that keeps him on a Sisyphean cycle. The film begins and ends with Llewyn at the Gaslight and subsequent alley pummeling, but by the end he’s getting shoved off the stage completely by a familiar-sounding newcomer singing “Farewell.”

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus had a nasty little habit of tricking the gods. They doomed him for all eternity to roll a stone up the hill, only to have it roll away from him. He had it coming, is the implication. Don’t anger the gods, whether they’re deities or just folk revival fans.

Thank goodness Oscar Isaac—who seems like a really nice guy, with talent in spades—has not been subsumed by Llewyn’s Sisyphean cycle. His success in everything from Show Me a Hero and A Most Violent Year to, yes, The Force Awakens makes it clear he’s on a different path than the doomed Greek rock-roller.

Those of us plaintively Tweeting “hey, I loved Oscar Isaac long before he hung out with droids” feel that hill, though, with the rock at the bottom. It’s par for the course in the critical life: every year is shoving a rock up the hill toward awards season, trying in vain to suggest that the “Oscar race” is not all that matters, slogging through the paint-by-numbers summer offerings, running the gauntlet of fall releases, championing and arguing, trying to ignore the comments section—only to feel the rock drop off a cliff right around early January and having to start all over again.

But I’m being silly. Why do we do it? Because we love it. (Certainly not for the money). We do it because it is how we feel like we’re not merely existing. On our good days, we are Camus’s version of Sisyphus, marching back down the hill toward the rock to start the climb again and choosing to be happy anyway.

On our bad days, it’s a little more dire. “I’m tired,” Llewyn says near the end of the film. “I thought I just needed a night’s sleep, but it’s more than that.”

There is only one possible appropriate drink to accompany a much-deserved, early-year rewatch of Inside Llewyn Davis, especially if existing feels rough and you need something a bit stronger than a good night’s sleep. I should think you could have ordered it at the Gaslight and perched on an uncomfortable chair, joints loosened by decades of folk fans shifting their weight from side to side. You could have listened to a quintet of earnest young men in fishing sweaters sing “The Old Triangle” or a nice likeable couple sing about a train going by or, if you’re lucky, catch a newbie with an unusual voice. You might just hear one of the regulars, a young man with a tired expression and a voice like velvet gold.

The drink involves whiskey, of course. Could it be any other way?

But in keeping with Llewyn’s nature, it’s a whiskey sour. The classic version of this is three parts whiskey (often bourbon, to cut the tartness), two parts lemon juice, one part simple syrup. Shake it all up and pour it over ice. However, if you really want to pay homage to Llewyn’s fate, go light on the syrup, and don’t pour it over ice: get those fancy little whiskey rocks they sell in gift catalogs, which won’t dilute either the whiskey’s bite or the lemon’s acid.

Before you pour it into the tumblr, reserve just a tad. Put it in a shot glass. Sneak outside and pour it onto the cold, hard concrete. Think of poor Llewyn, watching the world pass him by, and when you’re warm and watching his story, raise your glass to him, and to the little bit of Llewyn in all of us.


Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington PostThe Atlantic,The Los Angeles Review of Books,Pacific StandardMovie Mezzanine,Books & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans in the spring.